My Arctic Adventure: polar bears, glaciers, and midnight sun

1 Feb

How it all began…

I know exactly the moment when I added “The Arctic” to my mental travel bucket list.  I was in Antarctica with a friend who I will call my polar buddy.  After doing the polar plunge in the Southern Ocean, she turned to me and said “Was that your fourth ocean?”  I pondered for a moment and said “Yes, I think so.”  “Mine too,” she said.  And it was done.  So a year and half later, I sent an email asking if she was ready to do it the following year.  She was.

the Arctic, Svalbard Archipelago

The Arctic, Svalbard Archipelago. A short, steep guided hike provided a stunning view, including our boat

In all reality, this is a trip you do once in a lifetime.  Even on the “less expensive” end of the scale, it is expensive.  Ballpark, 10k per person.  So it had better be good.  For those of you who know you want to go, skip to the end for my tips.  For those of you who want the virtual journey, read on.  Perhaps you’ll be planning a trip of your own soon.

Polar Bears, please

The Svalbard archipelago is one of several places to see amazing arctic wildlife, including polar bears.  There are roughly 3,000 polar bears in the area.  To see them in their natural habitat, while sailing amidst glaciers glowing under the midnight sun, was a key draw for me.  I did get my moments, but the polar bears had to teach me their own lesson first: patience.

The staff and the captain on the National Geographic Explorer expedition ship were all looking for bears.  Up on the bridge, our wonderful captain came up and said, to no one in particular, with a thick german accent, “See anything white and furry?”  Guess you had to be there.  For the record, they aren’t easy to spot from several miles off, through a scope, on the white snow.  They look like little yellow potato chips crumbs that move.  I do mean little.  “Pixel bears” is how one staff member described them.  This is one reason why the skill and expertise of the expedition team are so important.

Also, it needs to be said that passengers aren’t patient, myself included.  We’ve seen the one in a million photo of the polar bear with its paws on the boat parked in the ice.  Savvy travelers note: don’t get hung up on the number of bears a boat sees.  Quality polar bear sightings are what matter.  Pixel bears are just pixel bears, even if they do make for a higher bear count.

Cuter than a puppy…Polar bear cubs!

We did get to see quite a few polar bears.  Like all mammals, they have a sense of play and silliness.  Watching a polar bear do a butt slide down a snow bank almost made me laugh out loud.  I also watched a polar bear perfect what I would liken to the yoga pose “downward dog.”  “Downward bear” was cleaning its face.  These are the rewards of patience.

Polar Bear (Mother and cubs)

Polar Bears in the Arctic

Well, that and two polar bear cubs with their mother.  And a kill.  Cuteness overload (minus the seal carcass).  After a slow approach on the boat, we got to watch them for about an hour.  They ate, faces streaked with red.  They snuggled with Mom.  They traipsed about on the snow.  Time stood still.  That is why I’d come.  National Geo/Lindblad does day-to-day write-ups and publishes them online.  Looking at all of the expeditions after mine, it seems they each got some memorable moments.  This was mine.  But it wasn’t the only one.

Can I pet the whale?

Fin Whale surfacing next to the boat

Fin Whale in the Arctic surfacing next to the boat

And what to our wondering eyes should appear but a 60 foot fin whale surfacing very near.  Unreal.  Completely unreal.  Thanks to skilled staff and a patient captain (and a little luck), a fin whale surfaced right next to the boat.  As in, I had to point my camera down.  This was completely unexpected, even to the staff, and almost no one had seen a fin whale this close up.  When the marine biologist, a whale specialist, is on cloud 9, you know that you’ve had another once in a lifetime moment.

A few more of my favorite polar moments

  • Sunbathing on the ice.  Thanks to the creativity of the staff and an obliging piece of ice, a few of us got to play model.  One of my favorite memories

    Welcome2Someday "sunbathing" in the Arctic

    "Sunbathing" in the Arctic...a "someday" moment

  • Ocean 5: Brrrrr.  The sun was shining and the water looked like the Bahamas, but… not so much.  In a carefully orchestrated exercise to ensure safety, many of us jumped in, one at a time.  And then out, as fast as I possibly could.  Luckily the boat had a sauna.  Aaaah.
  • Gil: As in the former chairman of National Geographic who was our global luminary on the boat.  He was charming and down to earth with stories of an amazing life.  I had several conversations with him.  He doesn’t know it, but he is part of the inspiration behind this blog.

Planning a trip to the Arctic

One year out.  If you want your choice of operators, dates, and discounts, please follow that advice.  To be clear, the discounts are meaningful (e.g. $1k), and the less expensive rooms go fast.

Polar buddy and I used Expedition Trips out of Seattle.  They don’t charge you a fee, they know their trips because they’ve been on them, and they respond quickly to email.  We used them to help us figure out Antarctica, and we were happy.  Hence, the repeat business.  There are multiple places to go in the Arctic, with Svalbard (above Norway) being one of the most common.  Canada and Greenland are also options, but we didn’t look too much at that.

We chose to go with National Geographic/Lindblad (per the advice of Expedition Trips) on the first boat of the season (against their recommendation).  Your individual needs will vary, but let me provide a few key points with commentary:

  • More expertise=better polar bears: A higher end operator will likely provide a better experience because you need their expertise to find and spot the wildlife, esp. the polar bears (Great advice.  Spotting bears is hard and a great captain will determine how close you can get.)
  • Every trip is different=go when it suits your schedule: My work schedule dictated when we could go, so first trip of the season it was.  After many conversations, my conclusion was that one trip could have x bears and the next could have 3x bears, regardless of timing.  Or so I justified to myself and polar buddy.
  • Bear season is short.  Effectively, June-August is your window.  I went in early June.  And much to my dismay, it does not coincide with the aurora borealis.  At all.

My Top 5 Tips for traveling to the Arctic

  •  Ski wear + lounge wear=all you need.  It isn’t as cold as you think so standard ski wear works just fine.  Jeans and a fleece work for the boat.
  • Know your camera in advance.  There is a lot of opportunity to learn about photography, but you want to be ready to jump when they spot Arctic wildlife
  • Spend time on the bridge: Staff were always present bear spotting and the captain was often there himself.  Ask questions.  Listen.  Watch.
  • Midnight sun=wear a lot of sunscreen.  It sounds obvious, but it doesn’t matter what time it is.  You could easily be outside for a wildlife sighting at 11pm.
  • Do it all, if you can.  Kayaking, hiking, lectures, meals with staff.  You won’t sleep much because of the midnight sun, so take advantage.  Let’s be honest.  This is all once in a lifetime.
  • Bonus: Look at your pictures during the trip.  I didn’t notice a dust spot (soon cleaned from the sensor) until the 2nd to last day.  It was easily removed from the photos using editing software upon my return, but there were a lot of pictures to fix!

Enjoy!

Header Photo: Polar Bear in Svalbard, Norway June 2011.  All photos: Svalbard, Norway  ©W2S Hilary

Someday is Today

26 Jan

Welcome to…Someday…which happens to be today, the first day and first entry on my travel blog.

The (not so glamorous) story behind the name of my blog

I owe it to my sister.  We both lived in Boston during the early 2000’s, and we were on a food tour of the North End.  Yum!  Until I bit down on dried garbonzo bean from a dry foods store and broke off a piece of a tooth with a filling.  My wonderful childhood dentist had always said it would need a crown someday.  My sister turned to me and said “Welcome to Someday.”

Let me be briefly philosophical.   Someday feels magical to me because of all the hope and possibilities it holds within it, especially when that vision becomes reality.  I don’t believe life is all rainbows and unicorns, but it is especially moving to me when it is something positive becoming reality.

To me, travel is a great thing.  It is a proverbial “someday.”  Even the sometime hassles are all part of what brings you to those special destinations near and far and creates those moments that are yours for a lifetime.  For me, a few of those moments are seeing a polar bear mama and her two cubs on an ice floe in the high Norwegian Arctic, 15 glorious minutes of an orange watercolor sunset over the peak of Mt. Everest (and sharing it with one of my best friends), and eating snack mix on the Great Wall of China underneath a circular rainbow.   Ok, done being philosophical.

Why you should read (or not read) Welcome2Someday

Full disclosure: this is an adventure for me.  So I can’t tell you exactly what to expect.  I don’t travel constantly so it won’t be a new country every other week.  That said, I do have a backlog of great stories and pictures from years of kinda cool trips.  Some of my pics aren’t even digital.  Yup, I said it.  Plus, I’ve done this all while at various stages of a demanding full time career or grad school and a varying budget that was never close to unlimited.

I’m honest and a straight shooter by nature.  I love knowing, and sharing with a select group, the best kept secrets or just plain good advice to (hopefully) make your own travels a little easier and a little better.

So if you are game, let the journey begin…

Cheers,

Hilary

P.S. Don’t forget to leave comments, share photos, and let the rest of us in on a few of your best kept secrets and “someday” moments!

Photo: Cabo San Lucas Sunrise 12/24/11 © W2S Hilary
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